Jurors wrapped up a second full day of deliberations Wednesday without reaching a verdict in the federal corruption trial of ex- Sheriff Lee Baca, who’s accused of authorizing a conspiracy to thwart a federal probe into civil rights abuses in Los Angeles County’s jail system.
Before concluding its talks for the day, the panel heard a read-back of the testimony of Cecil Rhambo, a retired assistant sheriff who was called to the stand by both the prosecution and defense during the two-week trial.
Rhambo said he had a brief meeting with his then-boss in August 2011 in which he cautioned against having deputies approach an FBI agent investigating civil rights abuses in the county jails, saying, “Look, don’t F around with the feds.”
Rhambo recalled he told Baca that if the federal agent was in any way threatened or intimidated, “it’s obstruction of justice. Don’t do that.”
Baca is accused of conspiring to commit, and committing, obstruction of justice from August to September 2011, partly stemming from the incident in which two sheriff’s investigators confronted the FBI agent in the driveway leading into her apartment and falsely told her that they were in the process of obtaining a warrant for her arrest.
The charges against Baca focus on a period of time five years ago when sheriff’s deputies based at the Men’s Central Jail stumbled upon the FBI’s secret probe of alleged civil rights abuses and unjustified beatings of inmates within jail walls.
After guards discovered that inmate Anthony Brown was secretly working as an FBI informant, they booked him under false names and moved him to different locations in order to keep him hidden from federal investigators who wanted to use him as a federal grand jury witness.
Prosecutors contend Baca so resented the federal government’s secret jails probe that he attempted to force the FBI to back down by illegally having deputies confront the agent. The prosecution also alleges that Baca ignored years of complaints about excessive force used illegally against jail inmates in county facilities managed by the Sheriff’s Department.
The jury also heard Rhambo’s defense testimony in which he recalled that when Baca was told about an inmate beating witnessed years earlier by a jail chaplain, the then-sheriff ordered his assistant sheriff to immediately investigate the allegations.
On Tuesday, the jury heard a read-back of the testimony of former Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Faturechi, who told of an article he wrote based on an interview with Baca. Just before hearing the reporter’s testimony, the jury submitted a note asking, essentially, if it was illegal for the sheriff’s department to have approached the FBI agent.
The judge answered that it was up to the panel to determine if the approach of the agent was part of a lawful investigation or whether it was intended to obstruct justice. The jury later canceled its request to re-hear other witness testimony.
After hearing closing arguments Monday, the jury at the new federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles spent a couple of hours in discussions before going home for the day.
Baca, 74, faces a third count of making false statements to federal investigators in April 2013, which will be the subject of a second trial. Prosecutors contend Baca lied to the FBI about his knowledge of department efforts to subvert a federal probe into corruption and inmate abuse in the jail system.
In closing arguments, a prosecutor told jurors that Baca “authorized and condoned” the conspiracy, but the defense threw blame on Baca’s former second-in-command.
In his summation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told the six-man, six-woman panel that during Baca’s years as sheriff, he “abused the power given to him by the people of Los Angeles County” by ignoring evidence of brutality against jail inmates and working to ensure “dirty deputies” were not brought to justice.
“He wanted to ensure that no outside law enforcement would police the jails,” Fox said.
Jurors also heard accusations from the prosecution that the retired lawman was the “heartbeat” of the sheriff department’s illicit response to the federal grand jury probe. Defense attorney Nathan Hochman countered that it was former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka who was to blame for the department’s actions.
The then-sheriff “was not the driving force,” Hochman said, telling jurors that Baca had no idea that Tanaka was running things. Tanaka was sentenced to five years in prison and is expected to begin serving his time next month.
Hochman told the jury that the government had “completely failed” to prove its case and had included graphic testimony of jail violence “to poison your mind” against his client.
The judge split the trial into two parts after he agreed to allow testimony by an expert on dementia — but only as it relates to the false- statements charge. Anderson agreed to hold a separate trial on those counts so the jury could hear the medical testimony. Baca is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
–City News Service
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